I’m finished with the catch-up posts from my time in the wilderness now.
But, if you already miss my disconnected and untimely ramblings on old news that you’d forgotten about some time ago, fear not! Sometimes it just takes me weeks to have an opinion on something.
I didn’t say much about any of this at the time, but Martin Robbins wrote a couple of months ago about this thing called Rock Stars of Science. This is some sort of campaign intended to make science seem cool, by getting the nerds who do it to stand near some awesome people.
Martin’s not a fan of the campaign, and I can’t say I’m loving it based on what I’ve seen so far either. I’ve clicked round their website for a while, and I can’t see many people learning anything worthwhile as a result of this.
There are some rallying cries about the importance of science, mostly to the effect of “Let’s cure cancer!”. There are lots of photographs that someone’s clearly gone to a great deal of effort to take. There are lots of scientists staring at you through a fashionable colour filter. And there are some big walls of text about the details of the research that the “Rock Docs” are doing, in which I’m not sufficiently interested to read more than half a paragraph. And I’m already on board with this whole science thing.
But, although much of Martin’s complaint is valid, I think he kinda misses the mark in his response as well.
Chris Mooney was involved in the campaign itself, and although I have my considerable reservations about his own stance on this, he’s annoyed at Martin for at least some of the right reasons. He quotes Martin’s article, referring to a photograph taken on the Moon depicting one of mankind’s more impressive achievements:
If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.
As Chris points out:
To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.
The thing about Martin’s comment is that it seems to imply (although I suspect this may not really be his position) that anyone who doesn’t automatically gush over the achievements of science, and stare in wide-eyed wonder at photos that represent extraordinary accomplishments in remarkable fields of study, is a hopeless Philistine who’ll never appreciate the beauty of science and isn’t even worth trying to reach out to.
Which is quite clearly neither conducive to a better public understanding of science, nor particularly fair to millions of Dan Brown fans.
Surely a big part of science communication needs to be about providing people with that sense of wide-eyed wonder, helping them to understand the astonishing truths that science has uncovered about the world around us, which aren’t immediately obvious to the uninformed layman. I don’t even think Martin would disagree with this in principle.
This is the reason (well, one of many) why Carl Sagan is especially cherished among popularisers and practitioners of science. He had a knack for powerfully communicating the beauty and awe of the ideas he talked about, and making these truths and discoveries seem as wondrous as they deserve to. If the coolness of a particular image should be self-evident to anyone with any sense, we would neither need nor value as we do the kind of skill that Sagan had. The concept of a “science communicator” might even be redundant.
I don’t think the Rock Stars of Science has done anything especially helpful, though I admit I probably haven’t experienced its full effect. But there absolutely should be something like that going on, to try and connect with people who’d otherwise shrug and go back to their reality TV and cheap thriller novels, and grab their attention long enough to explain something neat to them.
Given the often lamentable portrayal of “science” that their mainstream news outlets and trashy stories are probably giving them, it’s hardly their fault if it’s not immediately obvious why some of the cool things real science has to offer are worth getting excited about.
I am among those who are convinced that there is more concentrated awesomeness in Martin’s pixelly image of the Sun taken through the Earth than anything Bret Michaels is ever likely to do. But to fully understand, appreciate, and enjoy one of those, I just have to switch on my TV and stare dumbly forward; to really get the other one, I need to know what the hell neutrinos are.
We can and should keep talking about how great science is. But the people who need persuading of that are central to the science communicators’ struggle. They might not see it right away, but let’s not rule out their potential to someday see the same wonder that we do.